How Language Shapes Thought

By Chandra Chandhok 2021-01-15


Imagine sunlight glinting upon a Grecian sea or the vivid hues of Santorini’s rooftops. In English, we would describe both as “blue.” But to Greek speakers, the darker shade is “ble” and the lighter one “ghalazio.” When linguist and researcher, Panos Athanasopoulos, showed native Anglophones and Grecophones squares of light and dark blue, they found the Greek speakers viewed the two colors as more different. Did their language impact the color they saw?


There are few abilities all of humanity share, yet language is so ubiquitous and innate that every typically developing baby will acquire it by the time they are two years old. And the best part is, this is a skill we are never explicitly taught; we absorb it all on our own. While kids have to be taught to read, write, add, and subtract, no toddler has to be instructed on how to blather on about their favorite toy. 


For the longest time, language was considered merely a utility—a system of labels that helped us communicate with one another. In the 1930s, however, prominent linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, postulated that perhaps language could be more. It is a cognitively ingrained framework that doesn’t just allow us to communicate our thoughts, but actively shapes them, determining how we understand the world around us. 


Not only does language affect our visual perception, it also influences the depth of knowledge we have. Let us consider an example closer to home. In Hindi, saying “this is my uncle” is not as straightforward as it sounds. Hindi speakers have no choice but to encode more information about said uncle. The language requires that we denote whether he is a paternal or maternal uncle, whether he is related by birth or by marriage, and if he is the older or younger sibling. Given that all this information is obligatory, Hindi does not allow it’s speakers to ignore it. If I want to speak correctly, Hindi forces me to be much more precise, thereby endowing my listener with more detail. 


Finally, if you’re still not convinced that language governs thought, behavioral economist Keith Chen may just change your mind. Chen sought to understand why countries like China, Estonia, and Germany had such wildly different money-saving rates than India, Greece, and the UK. He selected English, a “futured language,” meaning one that distinguishes between the past, future, and present, and Mandarin Chinese, “a futureless language,” whose phrasing does not distinguish the events of yesterday and tomorrow. After meticulous analysis of vast swaths of economic data, Chen discovered that this linguistic feature correlated strongly with a propensity to save money. Futureless language speakers were 30 percent more likely to have saved money than futured language speakers. This phenomenon, Chen explains, occurs because English speakers view the future as distinct from the present, something to worry about far down the line; therefore, they are less driven to save for future comfort. 


Linguistic relativity may manifest in our lives in more ways than we previously thought. And it’s not so far a leap to assume that those who speak multiple languages see the world differently, in ways sublime or mundane. Perhaps knowing an extra word for blue simply influences what you can see on your next Aegean holiday.